Retrieving the Activist Tradition of "Militant Humility"
for Our Asian American Communities
By Glenn Omatsu
On May 31, 2008, the Southern California Library celebrated 93-year-old Okinawan American Dick Kobashigawa's more than seven decades of activism by adding his name to its Wall of Honor.
Tributes by fellow activists and friends highlighted the key role of Mr. Kobashigawa and other Okinawan Americans in pre-World War II Southern California when they mobilized against Japan's militarism and imperialism and fought for the expansion of rights for immigrants in the U.S. Tributes recalled his solidarity and support in the early 1970s for young activists in the early days of the Asian American Movement, especially for the Japanese Welfare Rights Organization in Little Tokyo. Tributes also recognized his literary accomplishments, notably his novels, promoting appreciation of worker culture in early Okinawan and Japanese immigrant communities. Common to all these tributes was an emphasis on how Mr. Kobashigawa - who toiled for most of his adult life as a gardener - embodied the quality of "militant humility," an important Asian American activist value that has been passed along from one generation to the next in our communities.
In the activist tradition of the broader society, the quality of humility is not associated with militancy. In fact, the two qualities are regarded by most Americans as opposites, and U.S. activists are trained - both consciously and unconsciously - to see political power and social change in terms of militant struggle. In contrast, the tradition of Asian American activism - born from the struggles of early generations of immigrant workers and nurtured by succeeding generations like Mr. Kobashigawa - integrally linked militancy to humility. This tradition of "militant humility" enabled them to develop patience for the difficult and uncertain process of
grassroots organizing, to emphasize sincerity in interactions with others, and to express gratitude in serving communities.
Most young Asian American activists today are probably unaware of Mr. Kobashigawa and the political legacy forged by early Okinawans in our communities. Yet, for young Asian American activists, the significance of Mr. Kobashigawa lies not only in his life accomplishments but also in his gentle reminder of the layers of activism that exist in our communities that are now oftentimes not acknowledged and sometimes not even seen.
For young Asian American activists today, the image of activism has been shaped by the overall gains in our communities during the past four decades and is now similar to image of activism in the broader society. Today, Asian American activism is associated with full-time work in community organizations and with careers in professions such as law, public policy, education, and social welfare. Today's face of Asian American activism is that of a community leader, a union organizer, a politician, or an advocate in the professions of law or education.
In contrast, I grew up at a time when the face of Asian American activism looked very different. I became a young activist in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at a time when Asian Americans were just beginning to gain opportunities in various professions due to grassroots struggles for justice and through affirmative action
programs. Thus, the older activists who mentored me were not lawyers, professors, or community leaders but "ordinary" people who worked in factories, as gardeners, in janitorial and domestic work, and in small businesses - the common occupations for Asian Americans then. My interactions with these activists shaped not only my understanding of political dynamics but also my appreciation of other aspects of community life. For example, I saw that political activists were not famous personalities on the TV news but gardeners like Mr. Kobashigawa. I learned that poets and novelists were not only acclaimed writers but also the elderly neighborhood barber, the local print shop worker, and the quiet office clerk living in a nearby apartment building. I identified eloquent speakers as not only Martin Luther King, Jr. but also the housewife who spoke at a neighborhood rally and the corner mini-market proprietor who testified at a government hearing against evictions in our neighborhood.
Today, in our Asian Americans, we still have activists like Mr. Kobashigawa among the ranks of garment workers, restaurant workers, and factory workers, but they are now largely unseen. Among immigrant workers, we have articulate writers and speakers, but they are not always appreciated. They are the hidden layers of activism and political eloquence in our communities - hidden by the prevailing, dominant image associated with the professional sector.
Honoring Mr. Kobashigawa enables young Asian American activists today to recognize these hidden layers of "militant humility" in our communities. Honoring Mr. Kobashigawa enables young activists to understand the legacy of Okinawans that connected organizing against war to the ongoing struggle against militarism and
imperialism. Honoring Mr. Kobashigawa enables young activists to appreciate immigrant worker culture and see how the defense of immigrant rights protects the rights of all people. Honoring Mr. Kobashigawa enables young activists to recognize that eloquence in writing and speaking are not the domains of professionals but the possessions of all sectors in our communities.
And most important of all, honoring Mr. Kobashigawa enables young activists to retrieve the Asian American tradition of "militant humility" and to ensure that it will be passed along to the generations that follow.
At the May 31 ceremony honoring him, Mr. Kobashigawa characteristically did not talk about his lifetime of activism. He did not even talk about achievements of his generation or the struggles and sacrifices of Okinawan activists. Instead, he thanked others and focused on the generations that came before him. "Let us remember the forgotten Issei who fought for peace and justice," he emphasized and asked that this message be inscribed on his brick for the library's Wall of Honor.
In the spirit of Mr. Kobashigawa, let us also emphasize the special Asian American tradition of "militant humility" and make sure that it is passed along to future generations in our communities.